It happens every year. Right about this time, I begin to hear about the new ninth graders our school will have next fall. Exasperated sighs are quickly followed by rumors and innuendo like “they’ll be adding 15 students to each of our caseloads” and “this one student drove two of the middle-school teachers into early retirement.”
No doubt, even in my short tenure teaching, I’ve seen some hardscrabble ninth graders, many with shaky academics and poor social skills. While I’ve nearly lost my faith a few times, I’m happy to say that I’ve always been willing to search for a seed of optimism.
For example: Last Wednesday, I lost it after a ninth-grade student in my classroom spent 90 minutes waving his hand in the air and making coughing noises to disrupt the class. I told him to go to the hallway, mostly just to give myself a moment to think of what to do next. Within 30 seconds, he rapped at the door, laughing and pointing his finger in the shape of a gun through the window. I fell back on the familiar, the only response I’d been able to quietly model and then teach others. I ignored him.
But as Anthony kicked the door with his sneakers, I admitted to myself that my method wasn’t working — what he was asking for was more attention, not less.
Over the last few weeks, we had tried to give him that through seemingly constant verbal redirection, reprimands, and (mostly empty) threats. As Anthony’s misbehavior became an almost daily occurrence, it seemed to make sense to respond to him less and less. When he misbehaved, I did nothing. And when Anthony was too tired to act out and actually submitted to work, I was quietly amazed and too mentally spent to do anything more than gibber in the relative peacefulness of the classroom. Anthony’s behavior had become the barometer of my mood and held most of my students in a state of consistent anxiety.
Early in the school year, Anthony was suspended for verbal threats and taunting. He returned after one day, and within two class periods he had resumed misbehaving. Soon I was back to my homemade prescription for dealing with his behavior, which included moving him to a more isolated corner of the classroom and keeping logs of his actions to share with his parents. At this point, my daily routines were little more than the quiet acts of desperate teacher. Despite my persistent hope that things would soon change (while Anthony continued to sputter and tick noisily in his chair), I secretly began to believe what he told us all a month ago — and he really said this — “I am going to drive you all crazy.”
I wish I could tell you that I’ve worked with my team, consulted the books, and turned Anthony around so that he’s a pleasure to have in the classroom. But I’ll leave that ending for the fiction writers to work out.
The real ending is that we’ve placed Anthony on a behavior plan based on five points. One point equals a green triangle with a star in it. We give Anthony one green triangle for absolutely any appropriate physical response he displays toward schoolwork or social appropriateness. Triangles with stars are only given, never taken away, and the levels of points correspond to rewards that Anthony and I have agreed upon. For example, five points is a visit to our Assistant Principal with whom he identifies with for some reason and has labeled “The Boss.” Four points is worth 15 minutes of computer time, and two consecutive four points lead to an M&M cookie.
I’ll be honest: We still have a long way to go. The visual point system works inconsistently. There are some days when Anthony doesn’t seem to care at all about the points or the rewards. However, on days that he behaves better, he is rewarded — and the constant delivery of triangles with stars gives him the attention he seeks while connecting educational staff to his appropriate, rather than inappropriate, behaviors.
The other night I was emptying my pockets before hanging up my slacks and I ran into a fistful of green triangles. I dropped them onto the counter and, standing in the half-light of the kitchen, I smiled. Even if they were only little hand-cut triangles, they may as well have been seven seeds of optimism — enough to carry me through another week with my student Anthony.
Questions for educators: Any advice for dealing with a student on the Autism Spectrum who seems to crave near-constant negative attention?